Book Review: Derrick Jensen's Endgame

Craig Chalquist, PhD


Derrick Jensen has compiled a tremendous amount of passion and information into these two stupendous volumes, one of which provides a stunning criticism of what we like to call by the name of civilization, with the second discussing the nature of effective resistance.

One value of this work has been its punching through of the denial and wishful thinking that keep so many environmentalists and thoughtful critics locked into fantasies that turn into failures. The term “spiritual bypass” has been used to describe the flight into contemplations of goodness and light that leap over the hard work of understanding the darkness now gripping the entire globe. I’m reminded of the Jungian analysts who wrote to George W. Bush and suggested that he take up a contemplative practice so he wouldn’t be so destructive.

The critique of taking too much responsibility—e.g., “We’re all part of the destruction”—also goes straight home. To my ears this inappropriate shouldering of accountability sounds like abuse victims blaming themselves for the perpetrator’s misbehavior. As Murray Bookchin pointed out long ago, the role of a poor black kid in Harlem hardly compares to that of the CEO of an oil multinational.

On the other hand, the author’s dismissal of both hope and the usual activist methods ignores some crucial facts. One is that the environmental movement, which stretches back well before Rachel Carson, has proven one of the most successful in history. We shouldn’t be blinded by how seldom the mainstream media dwell on this fact. For examples the reader might look over Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark.

Secondly, there are plenty of social science studies that demonstrate the ineffectiveness of shock tactics and scaring people who might otherwise be willing to take a deeper look at the growing planetary crisis. The perpetrators of it should certainly be held accountable, but for the person in the street, such tactics are no more convincing than the photographs of destroyed fetuses displayed by anti-abortion stalkers at Earth Day festivals. People generally respond to attacks on their defenses by going numb and turning away. We can’t afford the luxury of that.

It also seems to me that the analogy to Star Wars is in some ways false. [In the book Jensen compares the push for law suits, petitions, and legislation to protect the environment to trying to reason with Darth Vader and the Empire while they are busy blowing up planets.] I’ve spoken with many people at various levels of the corporate hierarchy, and not all of them are Darth Vaders (a psychoanalytically unfortunate choice, alas) or Vader slaves. Many, including executives and board members, find what they do repellant but feel caught up in a capitalistic system that requires them to behave destructively. Unlike their sociopathic counterparts, these people are actually hoping for alternatives; declaring war on them shuts down any possibility of dialoguing about how they could do business differently.

What the SW analogy also neglects is that the Empire was beaten not by the Rebel Alliance, whose valiant efforts did set the stage, but by a single man who surrendered his weapon and refused combat with the Dark Father. Why did he do this? Because he realized that behind the mask of the opponent he demonized hid a fearful human being like himself. He was able to move beyond seeing his enemy as an inhuman monster and to feel such compassion for him that balance was restored to the Force after all when Vader turned against the Emperor. Luke neither backed down nor continued to retaliate; he evolved into the kind of warrior who does no violence and yet cannot be beaten. As a result, the day was saved, as was the planet the battle station threatened to pulverize. One could even argue that the Death Star’s destruction was unnecessary. When stripped of its armaments it would have made a fine museum to the history of tyranny: a permanent memorial of what we should not build, and why we should not build it. I’ve been wishing for years that some Native Californians would push their way into the missions of California and create their own more honest displays as remembrances of the terrible consequences of unbridled genocide and greed.

Incidentally, six years of steady work with domestic violence perpetrators, murderers, rapists, and berserk soldiers has only strengthened my conviction of two things with regard to the destroyers around us: 1. They must be unfailingly and unflinchingly held accountable for their actions, and 2. They are only irredeemable to the degree we give up on them and turn away from their humanity just as they already have.

I would also like to recommend Jensen’s other books, particularly Listening to the Land, a very fine selection of interviews with many key thinkers and activists in the environmental movement. I earnestly hope their author can stay out of jail long enough to give us more of these admirable examples of speaking on behalf of landscapes under siege.

Reviewer's Note: Jensen has criticized those committed to nonviolence for insisting that everyone else adopt their convictions. I want to be clear about two things: first, that I won't be enlisting in the violent resistance effort because I don't believe violence has any long-term benefits, especially toward the deep transformation of consciousness, whereas it almost always makes enemies and involves the innocent as "collateral damage"; and second, that I don't offer this as a prescription for others to follow. I empathize with Jensen enough that some days I don't want to follow it either. Sometimes the news makes me want to smash something: ecologizing with a hammer.